29 October 2007

A-Rod Opts Out of Contract; Yankees Consider thir Options at Third Base

Well, I may have been right about Boston trouncing the Colorado Rockies in the World Series, but I definitely missed the mark on whether or not Joe Torre would stay, and whether or not Alex Rodriguez would opt out of his current contract with the Yankees. A totally classless move, to announce it during the World Series. I'm not sure why baseball agents aren't held to the same standards that baseball teams are when it comes to this stuff. But of course, it makes sense that A-Rod wouldn't show up to get his hank Aaron Award in person: It would look really bad for the crowd to boo the award winner at his own ceremony, and he and his agent know it.

Up until yesterday, most people were expecting the Yankees to keep Rodriguez from opting out of the contract by discussing a contract extension. They had even gone so far as to leak to the press that it would likely be in the range of 5 years and $150 million, which would average about $30 million per season, making him the highest paid player in the game for most of the next decade. And this, I believe, would have been in addition to his remaining three-years and $72 million from the previous contract, plus another $3 million per year in deferred money from the Texas Rangers, which he gets regardless of whether or not he opts out of the contract. So, if I understand it correctly, he's going out into the open market, and in doing so, is walking away from what was likely an 8-year deal worth at least $220 million.

Why would he do that? Only if he, and more accurately, agent Scott Boras, believe he could get more in the open market.

Even if I'm wrong, and the 5-year, $150 million contract would have replaced, instead of supplemented, the remainder of his ten-year, $252 million deal from Y2K, he's still walking away form a guaranteed $150 million or so, plus likely player options for additional years and money, if he wants them.

I'm not certain that this could have been the case, though, as the Yankees would rather have signed him ot an additional contract than to surrender the remaining $21 million and change owed to A-Rod by the Rangers. The Yankees really had a pretty sweet deal there, so you can see why it was in their best interest to keep him talking. They had a deal where they had the best player in the American League, if not all of MLB, signed for three more seasons, and another team was paying almost a third of his salary! What more could they want?

But what sense does it make for A-Rod to walk away?

Personally, I didn't think there was a market for J.D. Drew last year, at least nt one that would have gotten him more than the $11 million per year he was scheduled to make for the next three seasons with the Dodgers. But then somehow Scott Boras talked the Boston Red Sox into signing Drew for 5 years and $70 million, averaging about $14 million per year. Drew dropped off precipitously in 2007, despite helping his team win the World Series, hitting only .270 with 11 homers in 140 games. Perhaps Boras is thinking that if someone this mediocre is worth $14 million, Rodriguez must be worth $40 million per season!

The Yankees have stated repeatedly that they will not negotiate with Boras and Rodriguez if he opts out, but they've always been more about winning than principles anyway, and they know that they have a much better chance of winning in the next half a decade or so with A-Rod on the roster than without him. if he wins another MVP award next year (as he will certainly do this year), then it won't take long for the fans and the sportscasters to forget, or at least to forget to mention, the fact that the Yankees went back on their word in signing him, and the Yankees know that.

Sure, they're out $21 million of free money, and signing A-Rod will cost a fortune, maybe 8 or 9 years and $250 million, but what's that compared with having a living legend playing everyday for them, pursuing Barry Bonds' career home run record, and the chance at October glory?

Put another way: What are their alternatives?

Eric Duncan: 23 year old, AAA-3B. Hit .241 with 11 homers in 411 at-bats this year. In five years in the Yankees minor leagues, through six different levels, Duncan has averaged .250 with about 12 homers and 54 RBIs in 103 games per season. In short: He ain't it.

Marcos Vechionacci Was the Yankees' 7th best prospect, according to baseball America, as recently as 2006, but hitting only .266 with 2 homers in the Florida State League has dimmed his star a bit. Even if he starts to hit, he's still two years away, at best. That's not gonna be soon enough.

Free Agents:

The best of the bunch is Mike Lowell, who just led the 2007 Red Sox with 120 RBIs, and then won the World Series MVP award. He's not gonna be cheap. Plus the Red Sox want to keep him. He's going to be 34 by the time Spring Training starts, and to date he has exactly one season in which he hit better than .293 (which just happens to be this year, .324) and one year in which he hit more than 27 homers (2003, with 32). he's never walked more than 65 times in a season, and has therefore never scored 100 runs. For that matter, he's never scored more than 88 runs, and he doesn't steal bases at all. He does play pretty good defense, but almost certainly will not earn the $15 million per year he's going to command as a free agent.

The list gets pretty thin after Lowell. The return of Aaron Boone? Pedro Feliz? Mike Lamb? The other free agents this winter are: Tony Batista, Russell Branyan, Jeff Cirillo, Corey Koskie, Greg Norton (option for 2008), and Abraham O. Nunez. Really, folks, there's just not much out there. If they don't get Mike Lowell (and they almost certainly won't), then it's gotta be a trade.

Trade Market:

The trouble with predicting trades is twofold. One is that actual Major League Baseball general managers rarely tend to be as risk-taking or creative with their trades as you might be with your fantasy team, for example. The other is that most of the general managers in MLB do not tend to be as dumb as some of the other managers in your fantasy league prove to be. (Incidentally, if you're not sure who the "dumb" owner in your league is...it's probably you.)

A subset of the second problem is that players who are both productive and affordable tend not to be available, and players that are available tend either not to be healthy or productive, or both, and are almost never cheap. Eric Chavez might be available from the Oakland A's, but he's now hit about .240 for each of the last two seasons, and given that he's owed at least $37 million over the next three years (including a $3M buyout for 2011), it's tough to see why anyone else would want him, let alone a team as smart as the Yankees.

So we need to find a thirdbaseman who's making too much money, and has either been unproductive, unhealthy, or both, and whose team would be willing to part with him, maybe even paying some of his contract, but who also is very likely to be both healthy and productive again next year and for the foreseeable future (because as we've already noted, the Yanks have nobody in the minors who's likely to be even remotely helpful in the majors for at least two or three years.)

The following players will be free agents after the 2008 season: Hank Blalock, Joe Crede, Morgan Ensberg, Troy Glaus, Chipper Jones, Greg Norton (if Tampa picks up his option), and Scott Spiezio. Jones, Blalock and Spezio all have options for 2009.

Blalock is only making $6M next year, with an option for about the same for 2009, and a cheap buyout, so he's not going anywhere. Glaus has another year on his existing contract, plus a player option for 2009 for over $11 million, and a full no-trade clause, so that's not gonna happen, either. Crede had back surgery this year and droped off a lot from his career year in 2006. He's got one more year of arbitration eligibility, but after last year's lack of performance, I imagine that the ChiSox can re-sign him fairly cheaply for another year. Even though Josh Fields played pretty well in his absence, they're not likely to get rid of Crede, though for a couple of decent prospects, they might part with him.

Chipper Jones is an intriguing possibility. He's owed $11 million for 2008, and has an option for 2009 for another $8 to $11 million, depending on performance bonuses. Plus, as a 10-and-5 guy, he can veto any trade, so you would imagine that the Yankees would have to guarantee 2009 at $11 million to get him to waive that, at the very least. He's still a very productive hitter, though not as durable as he once was, being almost 36 years old. He's always been a pretty lousy fielding thirdbaseman, and that trend isn't going to reverse itself as he enters his late 30's.

The Braves have made no secret about the facts that
A) they need to save some money on payroll, and
2) they're not afraid to part with big-name franchise icons to do it.

In the last several years, they've said goodbye to Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Javy Lopez, Rafael Furcal and even longtime pitching coach Leo Mazzonne. This year, it's Andruw Jones and GM John Schuerholz. Chipper Jones is not above most of those guys.

The trouble for Atlanta, of course, is that neither they, nor the Yankees have anyone who's likely to be ready to play third base in the majors any time soon. So then either they'll have to get another thirdbaseman on the free agent market, make another trade, or bring in a third team to facilitate the trade with New York.

Another possibility might be someplace like Tampa Bay, where they got a decent year out of Japanese import Akinori Iwamura, but Evan Longoria is looking increasingly ready to wrest the major league job from him. Colorado is another possibility, as Garret Atkins is being crowded out of a job by Ian Stewart. Atkins is young and good and cheap, so he would peobably take a couple of top-notch pitching prospects to get in trade.

Iwamura might be a better option. He's signed to a 3-yr/$7.7 million contract through 2009, with a $4.25M club option for 2010. He hit reasonably well, but without much power as a rookie in 2007. Like Hideki Matsui, Iwamura may have been leery of swinging for the fences too much, not wanting to embarass himself in his North American debut. He averaged 35 homers per season in 2004-06 in Japan, so he could show more power next year, now that he's been around the league once. Matsui jumped from 16 homers to 31 in his sophomore season, and has hit 25 and 23 homers in his two full seasons since, so it's not unheard of. And given that he's nearly a year older than Atkins, without a long track record of success in American baseball, he would come a lot cheaper than Atkins.

Or, alternatively, they could sign a defense-minded 3B and try to make up the offense with another free agent signing, maybe Andruw Jones or someone like that. Or they could sign a defense-minded shortstop and move Derek Jeter over to third base, where his lack of range would not be such a problem.

Whatever they do, you can be sure of this: The New York fans will be pissed.

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